Adoption and Children Bill

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Ms Munn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Djanogly: Let me finish. In such circumstances, I do not think it adequate or appropriate that an 80-year-old whose records have been kept secret for 60 years suddenly has to rely on the NCSC to decide whether it is fair for the records to be disclosed. Such people have rights that the clause does not adequately consider.

Ms Munn: I appreciate the explanation, but I remain puzzled. What is being described is a system to control cases in which a person comes forward to seek information, and to deal with them in law and regulation. We are dealing with cases in which people do not follow rules and regulations, and social workers take it on themselves to provide information in a way in which they should not. The two sets of cases are not at all parallel. In my experience, such cases are highly unlikely to arise in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes.

Mr. Djanogly: I can assure the hon. Lady that such circumstances are not unlikely and arise quite frequently.

Mr. Brazier: In the rather harrowing constituency case that I mentioned, I did not refer to the local authority involved because we do not have concrete proof. However, it is difficult to imagine any means other than a leak from the local authority by which the mother could have discovered 11 or 12 years on where her four-year-old, now 15, was living. Imagine how much the child's appearance would have changed in that time. She did not even live locally. In that case, it appears prima facie that there was such a leak.

Mr. Djanogly: I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. We deal later with clauses 9 and 56. It would have been helpful to go through the Bill clause by clause, because to a great extent in this debate we are speaking hypothetically, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said. We will discuss what rights people have, and perhaps have a difference of opinion as to what they should be, but whatever they are, people should be able to protect the rights on which we decide. The clause creates an unlevel playing field between the system and other parties to the adoption process, which will be significantly to the detriment of the rights of people who should have rights.

I have mentioned the rights of children at other stages of the Bill and will continue to do so because I do not believe that the Bill protects them adequately. We talk about making children's rights pre-eminent but consideration of the Bill clause by clause reveals no hard words to show that children have rights in relation to consent or representation or, in the case of clause 94, in bringing the system to task.

Tim Loughton: Looking back on clauses 54 and 55, to which clause 56 ''Offence'' refers, I understand why the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) is confused. The whole Committee is confused, because much of the information that we are discussing hypothetically has not yet been prescribed in regulations. Again, we are talking about undefined information.

We are referring to both disclosure and non-disclosure of information. The hon. Lady questions whether such cases would arise, but I can think of many times when they have done. If information were released to a birth parent about the whereabouts of an abused child who was later adopted, the abused child or the adoptive parents would have a serious grievance against the adoption agency that released the information. The registration authority might not see fit to take action against that agency, and the only recourse would be a minority decision by the Attorney-General to intervene, which is a serious occurrence.

Mr. Djanogly: I thank my hon. Friend for elaborating on my point. Adoption agencies have been known to get things wrong—there is no dispute about that—and one can imagine circumstances in which an agency puts a child with abusive parents in a vulnerable position. It is easy to assume that the state and institutions such as adoption agencies are there to support the child. That is what we want, and is the purpose of the Bill, but it has sometimes not been the case. The child might be doubly exposed, by having abusive parents and by being denied services that the state should provide to them. Clause 94 would not adequately protect the rights of children in such circumstances, and I support the amendment.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): Mrs. Roe, may I say how delighted I am that you are the Chairman of my first Committee contribution as a Minister? I look forward to our deliberations.

First, I shall describe some of the background to the clause. Subsection (1) sets out that proceedings for offences under clauses 9 and 56 are to be brought by the registration authority unless they are brought with the written consent of the Attorney-General. Clause 9(1) enables regulations to be made to regulate local authorities, voluntary adoption agencies and adoption support agencies in relation to their adoption functions. Under clause 9(3), such regulations may provide that contravention or failure to comply with the regulations would render a person guilty of a criminal offence and liable on summary conviction. Clause 56 enables regulations to be made providing that when a registered adoption society discloses information in contravention of clause 54 or 55(4), it is guilty of a criminal offence

    ''and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5''.

Clause 54 sets out the restrictions on disclosure of protected information and clause 76 information. Protected information means identifying information about the adopted person and/or any other person. Clause 55 provides that information about a child may be disclosed to prospective adopters only if prescribed through regulations for that purpose. The effect of the amendment would be that any person could bring proceedings for the offences. Either the Crown Prosecution Service or an individual could bring a private prosecution without reference to the Attorney-General or anyone else.

11.15 am

Slight confusion has arisen and I would like to reassure the Committee. The provision relates to clauses that implement the regulation of adoption agencies. We believe that it is important that offences under the clause are prosecuted by the NCSC in England and the National Assembly for Wales in Wales so that they can monitor the services provided by the agencies in England and Wales. The other important point is that those bodies will be able to provide specialist expertise when conducting prosecutions. We strongly believe that the commission and the Assembly will be best placed to carry out that task.

Mr. Brazier: I do not follow the Parliamentary Secretary. The first of her two points seemed to be a non sequitur. Of course the two statutory bodies should have the power to prosecute; they are in most cases the best informed and best placed to do so. However, it would not in any way undermine that power or that expertise if others, particularly interested parties, also had the right to bring a prosecution.

Ms Winterton: I shall come those points later.

Mr. Djanogly: I am sorry for the double disturbance, but my point is relevant. The Parliamentary Secretary just used the words ''prosecution'' and ''monitoring'' in the same sentence, but the two do not necessarily go together. The state has the right to prosecute, but why should that be put together with its duty to monitor? If a private person were to initiate a prosecution, the state would still be able to monitor what was happening in relation to prosecutions.

Ms Winterton: The monitoring bodies' role will be enhanced by their being allowed to bring prosecutions arising from a breach of the regulations. The prosecutions will arise from the regulation of local authorities, voluntary adoption agencies and adoption support agencies in respect of their adoption functions, and of registered adoption societies in respect of the disclosure of information. Because the NCSC and the National Assembly for Wales will monitor agencies' adherence to the regulations and it will be a criminal offence to breach those regulations, prosecutions will be better carried out by those bodies than by the CPS or the police. That approach is entirely consistent with section 29 of the Care Standards Act 2000, which applies when the NCSC prosecutes offences under part II of that Act.

Tim Loughton: It would be useful if the Parliamentary Secretary gave some parallel examples of other criminal offences the prosecution of which is restricted to a regulatory body. For example, I served on the Committee that considered the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 and I know that the Financial Services Authority has a regulatory role and that it can initiate various prosecutions and prosecute its members internally. However, that role is not exclusive to the FSA; if fraud arises from the monitoring role of the FSA, the CPS can bring fraud charges against the offending firm or financial services practitioner.

Ms Winterton: I shall come to that point later in my response. First, I shall finish speaking about consistency between the Bill's provisions section 29 of the Care Standards Act 2000.

The offences include breaches of regulations imposing requirements on how establishments and agencies registered under the Act should be run, failing to comply with conditions of registration, and making false statements in applications for registration. Other offences under the Bill are more appropriately prosecuted by the police and the CPS, for example, one offence listed in clause 114 is that of publication of advertisements by someone other than an adoption agency or a person acting on an agencies behalf offering a child for adoption. We are talking about breaches of regulations being a criminal offence, and prosecutions would be carried out by the NCSC or the National Assembly for Wales. If someone thought that the commission had not taken effective action against an adoption agency for breach of regulation, it would be open to that individual to ask the Attorney-General whether he could take action because the commission had refused to do so.

 
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